UJC’s Dilemma: When To Lead?

Opinion

By Jacob B. Ukeles

Published July 08, 2009, issue of July 17, 2009.
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With the appointment of Jerry Silverman, a highly successful nonprofit and corporate executive, as the new CEO of United Jewish Communities, the troubled umbrella organization for North America’s Jewish community federations is hoping to turn a new page. So far, Silverman, most recently the executive director of the Foundation for Jewish Camp, is saying the right things. In his initial interview after his appointment, Silverman put his finger on two critical elements in turning UJC around: “developing a very clear vision and having a top-notch, results-oriented organization.”

In the 10 years of its existence, UJC has been unable to define a clear mission. At the most basic level, there has been the question of whether UJC should lead community federations or serve them. A UJC that leads is proactive; a UJC that serves is reactive. If the mission is to serve, there is a built-in paradox: The large federations foot most of the bill for the UJC budget, but need very little service; the smaller federations pay a small share of the bill but need more service.

UJC is owned by the federations. But the owners have been ambivalent about what kind of an umbrella organization they want. Most seem to want a weak central body. At the same time, paradoxically, they want visible results that can come only if they voluntarily give up some of their power. The owners of UJC need to come to grips with their own ambivalence. If they want UJC to lead, it has to have power; if they want UJC to follow, they can’t complain if it doesn’t lead.

UJC has attempted to meet differing and often contradictory expectations about its agenda. It has attempted to connect with a rich smorgasbord of issues, ideas, initiatives, programs and policies — all interesting, all important, all relevant — but, in the aggregate, overwhelming. With hundreds of important donors and interest groups, it has been virtually impossible to set priorities. When the federations press UJC to cut its budget, it is hard to know what to give up.

To meet these challenges, UJC will need to engage the owners, especially the largest federations, in a serious, open dialogue about a defined arena within which UJC is expected to lead collective action and the arena (probably larger) within which each federation will function essentially independently.

In defining a limited arena for collective action it is useful to start with the understanding that Jewish life in North America is highly decentralized (much more so than in other times and other places). The job of each local federation is to build and enable local communities. Each Jewish community has a unique culture, and each federation faces unique community-building challenges.

The key challenge for American Jewish leadership in the 21st century is to create or enable compelling, exciting and energizing Jewish communities that individuals will choose to identify with to enrich their own lives and those of their families. Whereas once Jewish community occurred naturally — most Jews married other Jews, lived in Jewish neighborhoods and had mostly Jewish friends — today that is no longer the case. Communities need to be created; they no longer just happen.

At the same time, in an age of high mobility and instant communications, there is a national and global dimension to community-building. UJC should lead in precisely those areas of building Jewish community that are beyond the scope of each individual local community. UJC should focus on a limited number of powerful initiatives (three to five) with significant potential for building the national and global Jewish community. This would provide a framework for a selective agenda and provide the basis for a leaner, more focused organization.

Some examples:

• We need a massive national effort to help the newer Jewish communities of the West and South to scale up their communal social and physical infrastructure to match an exploding population. Over the past 20 years, there has been a dramatic shift in Jewish population from established, well-organized Jewish communities in the East and Midwest to newer communities in the West and South.

• UJC should spearhead the American component of a global “Next Gen” partnership connecting young Jewish adults in Israel and around the world in the creation of new, grass-roots Jewish culture and in building global Jewish community. In this effort, UJC should partner with the major Jewish foundations, themselves committed to ensuring a vital Jewish future.

• We need a major effort to develop a national pool of senior professional leaders, men and women, especially for Jewish education, but for Jewish communal service as well. Most local communities have the resources to train teachers; few have the resources to train executives.

• UJC could help foster communities of federations — not by providing direct service, creating programmatic models or direct fundraising, but by encouraging federations to work together. Big federations should help smaller ones in their own region. UJC should use the Internet to disseminate the best applied research and models of excellence.

Especially today, in a time of great economic and fiscal stress, Jewish organizations, including UJC, need to focus their energies on doing a few very important things well, rather than trying to be all things to all people. With fresh professional leadership, UJC can play an important role in turning today’s crisis into an opportunity for improving Jewish life and Jewish community.

Jacob B. Ukeles is president of Ukeles Associates, Inc., a New York-based planning and management consulting firm. He is the author of “Doing More with Less: Turning Public Management Around” (American Management Association, 1982).


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